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When the stiff upper lip starts to wobble…

by Captain Dave Fielding BA section rep

Is the ‘Right Stuff’ the curse of the modern pilot?

We are taught from Day 1 to set high professional standards for ourselves. It’s one of the reasons we have such an enviable safety record as an industry and one we are rightly proud of. Yet striving to perform at the best of our abilities every time we are in uniform can sometimes prove to be a double-edged sword when it comes to wellbeing and mental health.

Study after study consistently shows that between 20% and 25% of adults will experience some form of significant mental trauma in their lifetime. There are also numerous studies which show that pilots are, in fact, only human. Shocking, I know. And no amount of simulator and resilience training will insulate pilots from the effects of…life. For example, pilots have relationships that fail, elderly parents sliding into dementia, or teenage children who self-harm, just like everybody else. All of these significant stressors will inevitably affect a pilot’s performance in the cockpit and therein lies the problem: we struggle to deal with under-performance because we are just not used to it. We would prefer to try and sort everything out ourselves rather than put our hand up and ask for help, because doing so would be weak and admitting that we couldn’t live up to those impossibly high standards. There is also the perception that owning up to a mental health issue will automatically lead to the medical being removed, being sacked, and ending up with just a bottle of Prozac for company.

The challenge for the industry is to demonstrate that it is actually safer and better for the pilot to open up about mental health issues and seek help. The Germanwings crash of 2015 vividly focussed minds as to what happens if serious mental health issues are concealed, and EASA’s response has been bold and very progressive. To date, the EU Regulation 2018/1042 is the only piece of regulation in the world which mandates that all pilots working for their AOC holders have access to a support system, and one manned by Peers. The compulsory nature of the legislation has moved the issue of Pilot Peer Support Programmes (PPSPs) firmly into centre stage and driven much innovation and energy.

BALPA, with its experience of its own Pilot Advisory Group (PAG) and long running campaigns on the importance of understanding mental health issues, has been at the forefront of such new thinking. An example of which is the use of the internet to contact the programme rather than the traditional telephone hotline. The British Airways Speedbird PAN (www.speedbirdpan.com) was the first PPSP to be established in Europe after the Germanwings crash and the model has been adopted widely since.

Having well designed, strongly governed programmes using well-trained and committed Peers is only half the story, however. No-one can ever be forced to talk about their mental health issues. Continuous work is needed to educate pilot workforces that the programmes are truly confidential, that management and the Regulators will only know about issues if the pilot consents, and that they will receive genuine support to address those issues and get back to flying as soon as safely practical.

We are helped in this regard by a definite societal shift. It is now much more common to talk openly about mental health struggles. The Regulators are also realising the importance of getting the message out that they are the ‘yes’ people rather than the opposite when it comes to returning medicals. Their presence at industry conferences such as IPPAC (International Pilot Peer Assist Coalition – which is sponsored by BALPA and held in London this year on the 8-9th November is testimony to the joined-up effort to persuade pilots that in the overwhelming majority of cases seeking help for mental health issues is not career limiting.

The response to the widespread introduction of PPSPs in Europe since Germanwings has been heartening. Thousands of pilots have received help with their mental health issues when previously they would have had to suffer in silence. There is still a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction. The Covid pandemic was significant in accelerating the wellbeing debate in a positive way. Amidst so much psychological uncertainty, the importance of having established support programmes to turn to was underlined. So many conversations during that period revolved around mental health and wellbeing, and that can only help the process of destigmatising these issues.

Perhaps the most important message for pilots to think about on World Mental Health Day, and indeed on any day, is that whilst for the vast majority of our careers we set and live up to very high professional and personal standards, there will inevitably be times in our lives when we struggle. This does not make us failures, or weak, or unprofessional. It just shows that we are human. It is perfectly possible for us to work through significant personal issues, with appropriate help, and still operate safely in the cockpit. One of the most powerful messages a Peer can give to a pilot contacting a PPSP is simply:

It’s OK just to be OK.